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House Post-Mortem #2: Another Look

INTRODUCTION

The previous Split Ticket House Post-Mortem addressed a question unheard of for the entire election cycle: could Democrats hold the House? For most of the year, even after the Dobbs decision, the answer would have been a resounding no. Going into November, partisan polling and historical precedent had biased the forecasting world’s view of the national environment toward Republicans. 

Split Ticket accounted for this partisan influence with a non-partisan generic ballot tracker that painted a more balanced picture of national conditions. Election night returns threw the conventional wisdom governing midterms out the window. Democrats outperformed expectations in swing districts nationwide, leaving House control in doubt for over a week. Republicans ended up winning enough uncalled races to secure a thin majority, but Democrats endured the midterms better than any incumbent party since 2002. 

Today’s recap begins by examining races that Split Ticket called incorrectly. That number currently stands at 18 out of 435 — a 96% accuracy rate. Looking exclusively at the 99 seats on our competitive board, we called about 80% correctly. Particular focus will be placed on the West because results there are now nearing completion. Final returns from the region could raise our error count to 19 seats, but we’d be satisfied either way because our calls out West were more accurate than they were nationwide.

For future House coverage, check out our Against The Trend series and mark your calendars for upcoming pieces on the Generic Ballot, Crossover seats, and WAR modeling. 

WHAT’D WE GET RIGHT?

As mentioned, our western House predictions were almost impeccable. All ten of the races below were considered TOSSUPs at some point during the campaign, with most forecasters keeping them in that category up until election day. Split Ticket called each contest properly despite having to move “against the grain” in districts like WA-08 and CA-49.

In WA-08, a Biden +7 seat held by Democrat Kim Schrier, the primary results —  which suggested an even national environment — were predictive of the general election just like they were in 2020. This time Schrier got 48% in the first round and went on to win by 7 points. The combined Republican vote share fell by 2 points between both votes. 

California’s primary returns were also predictive thanks to leftward electoral shifts that have historical precedence but do not occur everywhere. While the pattern did affect key districts this year, effects were sometimes too insignificant to carry Democrats over the line. 

Case in point is CA-22, still uncalled, where the shift might be too small to elect Rudy Salas over Republican David Valadao. Although Valadao has undeniable crossover appeal, particularly in Kern County, poor minority turnout likely hampered Democratic chances in his district. Similar dynamics could put Republican John Duarte over the line in CA-13, another uncalled seat.

The electorate also got bluer in CA-45, CA-47, and CA-49 between the two rounds. Democrats Katie Porter and Mike Levin outran Governor Gavin Newsom to comfortably win despite perceived vulnerabilities. In CA-45, a reach target for Democrats, incumbent Republican Michelle Steel won modestly thanks to the GOP’s down ballot strength in Orange County. Compared to her colleague Young Kim, who won by more in a redder seat, Steel could have a tougher race in 2024.

In CA-27, a Biden +12 seat home to Republican Mike Garcia, the general electorate might end up redder than it was in the primary. There was a minor Democratic shift in the old CA-25 in 2020. Garcia overperformed slightly in 2020 according to Split Ticket’s WAR research, though not to the same extent as Valadao or Kim. Christy Smith, a repeat Democratic challenger, faced an uphill battle this cycle since national Democrats triaged the 27th and Governor Gavin Newsom lost the district.

In Oregon — a firmly blue state on the Pacific coast — credible evidence suggested Republicans could have a banner cycle. GOP’s gubernatorial nominee Christine Drazan believed the unpopularity of term-limited Democratic Governor Kate Brown and the ballot presence of independent Betsy Johnson could allow her to win a plurality of the vote. These Republican hopes trickled down to the congressional level.

Despite the noise, Oregon’s Democratic partisanship ultimately prevailed, allowing Val Hoyle and Andrea Salinas to narrowly win in OR-04 and OR-06. OR-05, a Biden +8 seat, proved more fortuitous for the GOP. There, Lori Chavez-DeRemer defeated Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who had been abandoned by national Democrats groups. Split Ticket WAR research suggests that moderate incumbent Kurt Schrader would not have been any more electable than his progressive primary opponent, despite arguments to the contrary.

In NV-01, a Biden +9 seat held by Democrat Dina Titus, Republicans failed to overcome the district’s partisanship despite rumblings of a close race before the election. A NYT-Siena poll showed a 47-47 tie, which might have been an accurate reading of the race at the time. Given Senator Catherine Cortez Mastos’s impressive hold on the Hispanic vote, though, it’s reasonable to assume Titus also had sticking power with both that group and working class Democrats in general.

The last district worth touching on is AK-AL, where parochial Democrat Mary Peltola is on track to win a full term in an upcoming ranked choice instant-runoff. Alaska, a Trump +10 state, wouldn’t even be a point of discussion this cycle if it weren’t for the death of legendary Republican Rep. Don Young — the late Dean of the House. 

Peltola, a pro-Gun Democrat, won the August special election on an appealing “fish, family, freedom” message. Set to once again face unpopular ex-Governor Sarah Palin, Peltola should win comfortably to begin what could be a long and prosperous career in Washington. In fact, she’s already polling almost 49% of the vote — just shy of an outright majority.

WHAT’D WE GET WRONG?

As of this writing Split Ticket has missed just four races in the West, two of which were decided for Democrats by just a few thousand votes. A fifth miss could come in CA-13, a LEANS D seat where Republicans currently hold a slim lead. There’s too much noise to make a proper estimate, but results from the New York Times suggest that most of the outstanding votes are from Stanislaus County. Democrat Adam Gray leads there by 4 points, but it’s unclear if the county’s remaining ballots will split favorably enough for him to overtake Duarte. We’ll have more to say about this race — and our accuracy for the chamber — once it’s called.

We should preface this section by noting that our definite misses don’t shock us. Democratic victories in these seats might not have been considered median outcomes before the election, but LEANS ratings wouldn’t have been issued had we considered Republicans commanding favorites.

In NM-02 and CO-08, Split Ticket actually published detailed district rundowns before the election, which you can read here and here. Those pieces articulated why Republicans Barbara Kirkmeyer and Yvette Herrell were considered favorites based on the evidence available at the time, but also laid out clear paths for Democratic victory.

Colorado Republicans recently blamed Libertarian nominee Richard Ward for spoiling the election in CO-08. Ward received roughly 4% of the vote in a race that Democrat Yadira Caraveo won 48.4 to 47.7% according to the latest numbers. Split Ticket is hesitant to assume every Libertarian voter would’ve picked Kirkmeyer as a second choice, but we’d still be surprised if the third party split didn’t have at least some effect on the final results. Kirkmeyer predictably outran Trump in both the Adams and Weld portions of the seat.

Further south in New Mexico, Democrat Gabe Vasquez unseated Republican Rep. Herrell by about 1,100 votes in a Biden +6 district. In our write-up, we tied hopes of Democratic victory to reviving Biden’s coalition in NM-02. Vasquez unsurprisingly underperformed the President, but held up well enough in Bernalillo and Dona Ana counties to squeak by. The NYT-Siena poll that showed Democrats narrowly ahead here before the election proved quite accurate.

The least expected of the misses came in WA-03, a Trump +4 seat rated LEANS R. Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez’s victory against Republican Joe Kent isn’t that shocking in hindsight given the electoral penalties extremist candidates paid elsewhere on November 8th. Like Lauren Boebert and JR Majewski, Kent turned off enough voters to defy inelasticity and underperform Trump substantially across the district. Had moderate Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler not lost this year’s jungle primary, this GOP could’ve held this seat.

In NV-03, a Biden +6.6 seat in Clark County, Democrat Susie Lee comfortably won reelection against Republican April Becker. Hispanic turnout was lower across the board compared to 2020, but Democrats managed to hold up quite well with the demographic overall. Political analyst Zach Solomon wisely pointed out that part of the reason Nevada’s risky Democratic gerrymander survived was the fact that low-turnout precincts were evenly distributed between all three vulnerable incumbents. Lee herself prevented enough suburban bleeding to come out on top.

TECHNICALLY RIGHT, BUT OFF THE MARK

Close Races We Did Account For

Split Ticket correctly predicted close races in MT-01, CA-41, and AZ-01 by using the LEANS R column. In Montana, former Rep. Ryan Zinke — who resigned in scandal from the Trump Administration — won by 3 in a Trump +7 seat that backed Jon Tester and Steve Bullock. Zinke had barely won his primary and internal polls supposedly showed a close race against former Olympian Monica Tranel, an excellent Democratic recruit.

In California and Arizona, Republican Reps. Ken Calvert and David Schweikert both won modestly in marginal districts despite little national Democratic interest in challengers Will Rollins and Jevin Hodge. Both members underperformed in 2020 according to Split Ticket WAR research and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either lose in 2024 assuming the environment is neutral or Democratic-leaning. 

Close Races We Missed

Split Ticket rated CO-03 and AZ-06 correctly in terms of partisan outcome but could’ve categorized both more accurately. Republicans won each seat narrowly despite being considered clear favorites. 

In CO-03, a Trump+8 seat taking in the Western Slope, a generic Republican probably would have won comfortably despite incredible Democratic overperformances across the board in the Centennial State. Lauren Boebert, a controversial incumbent and WAR underperformer, currently leads her opponent Adam Frisch by just 554 votes out of roughly 330,000 cast. Should she come out on top, her slight victory would add to a pile of evidence this cycle that extreme candidates pay electoral penalties, something Split Ticket has written about before.

AZ-06, an EVEN seat encompassing the suburbs of Tucson, ended up being one of a handful of races that decided House control for Republicans. Juan Ciscomani, a former advisor to Governor Doug Ducey, was seen as a shoo-in against Democrat Kirsten Engel, the candidate of retiring Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. He ended up winning by less than 2 points. Had national Democrats invested more in this seat, along with CA-27 or OR-05, they could have maintained House control.

2024 – A VERY EARLY LOOK

It’s dangerous to handicap the 2024 House elections so far in advance, but there are a few generalities worth mentioning anyway. The most important one deals with the Democrats’ high floor, which could make control of the House a TOSSUP next cycle unless mid-decade redistricting in Ohio, North Carolina, and Texas changes the playing field significantly for Republicans. For now, our primary conclusion would be that candidate quality does still matter, especially during elastic midterm years

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